UK Robotics Week highlights expertise and potential for mechanical assistants

Jason Ford - News Editor, The EngineerJason Ford
News editor

There doesn’t appear to be much middle ground when it comes to discussions about robotics and automated systems.

The automotive industry has had robotic operatives on shop floors for decades but technological advances mean that the robot is becoming more capable and will inevitably become more ubiquitous in a variety of industries.

A broader look at automated and autonomous technology sees the potential for such systems to be truly disruptive, giving companies the opportunity to rethink how they deliver products or services.

In the maritime arena, for example, container ship operators might look at automated systems in terms of the savings they’ll make when purchasing vessels that don’t require crew facilities and the wider capabilities their vessels will give them. Merchant seamen might not be looking at this prospect with the same level of enthusiasm, a view that is applicable wherever the robot or automated system is introduced into the workplace.

Companies will argue with some justification that robots will step in to carry out laborious or dangerous jobs, freeing the human employee to do something more suited to their talents.

Whilst co-bots have gradually made their way onto the shop floor, the humanoid equivalent has been slow to evolve, although that could all be about to change.

Multi-contact robots will be able to make contact with their environment using their entire bodies, giving them the sort of agility that has previously been seen in sci-fi movies but not in industry.

To this end, Airbus has been working with the Franco-Japanese Joint Robotics Laboratory in Tsukuba to develop robot capable of — for example — undertaking work in the confines of an aircraft’s fuselage.

From the USA, two and four-legged robots have regularly emerged from the labs of Boston Dynamics to enthrall and disturb the imagination in equal measure. As things stand, though, the robot remains a tool and it is up to humans to decide whether they are put to work for good or nefarious purposes. Things might change, of course, if the robot becomes sentient.

This potentially dystopian — and so far unproven — outlook shouldn’t overlook the fact that Britain sees its robotics research as world-leading and this year’s UK Robotics Week will be showcasing how such systems can be applied in areas including surgery, social care, and disaster relief.

EPSRC is supporting the series of robot-related events that culminate in the International Robotics Showcase on June 30, 2017 at IET’s HQ in London.

According to EPSRC, this year’s programme of events includes five competitions in the areas of surgery, extreme environments, resilient infrastructure and social care robotics, and the premiere of an Autonomous Systems film by Southampton University on emergency resilience and disaster response. Schoolchildren from across the UK are also participating in the School Robot Challenge, where they will learn how to design a virtual robot bug and teach it to move.

The International Robotics Showcase includes talks, panel discussions, exhibitions, robot demonstrations and an award ceremony for competition winners demonstrating cutting-edge robotics innovation. The UK-RAS Network will also launch four new White Papers, providing an overview of the current research landscapes in resilient infrastructure robotics; AI and robotics; robotics for emergency response, disaster relief and resilience; and robotics in social care. Doors open at 9-00am at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), Savoy Place in central London.